There has been much talk this week of African entrepreneurs helping to turn the continent round. I have looked for evidence of African commercial activity on the web,- which has the great advantage of being very low cost - and am disappointed. But look elsewhere in the developing world ? particularly China ? and there are plenty of clues to show a path that might be followed.
First to Africa. In 1998 I discovered Kenya?s first internet shopping mall, called E-street. It was selling products to people who lived in the countryside, and had struck deals with Securicor and Shell to have them delivered to petrol stations. Good idea, but it didn?t last. E-street?s web address (www.eastafrica.com) is still used, but now it is the home of hotel directory, the East African Travel Network.
I found a few home-owned companies with their own sites. Lagos-based Selina Ventures (www.selina-ventures.com) has a minimalist site that tells us the company is ?for all your business needs in Nigeria?; as its divisions include an employment bureau and pest control, this claim seems reasonable. In the same city SystemSpecs (www.systemspecs.com.ng) is a software company with a good site. Its values section is fascinating. Apart from dependence on God, the company promises ?diligence in our work, that we may stand before kings and not mere men?.
But overall my trawl for business sites was depressing. It looks as though the African web has done the same as most African economies ? stayed still while others rushed ahead.
How did they rush ahead? Well, if we take China as an example, they certainly didn?t set up pretty websites and wait for business to roll in. Most sites are still basic, with plenty of the sort of English that sets Anglophones chortling. They do the business though.
Asian traders realised early that as a great networking mechanism, the internet offered them new opportunities. Bulletin boards were set up to buy and sell anything and everything; you may still get offers yourself, coming into your junk email box.
Most of this activity has moved to the web. Type www.trainingforum.com into your web browser, and you will see a long list of messages. They say things like ?nike shoes by cai?, ?Samsung A670 LCD by Viky?, and ?Epoxy Twisting Tube china sell by aimin?. The great majority have been posted by Chinese manufacturers, and some have generated replies. David, from the ShenZhen Xinao Plastic and Electron Company, offered toys on trainingweb last September, and had 15 follow-up mails asking for brochures ? two I could trace came from Turkey and Bulgaria,.
Most posts lead to the next stage of refinement ? a company website. The HuaHong Electronic Company (www.huahongnet.com), ?one of the leaders in original mobile phone accessories?, has a simple site with pictures of products such as mobile LCDs and Bluetooth headsets. As well an email form, the company has added an unusual way of getting in touch: two MSN Messenger addresses. This makes a lot of sense ? instant messaging means a potential customer can have a live text-based conversation with a HuaHong manager: more useful than email or fax, and given that one or both may have limited English, with less opportunity for misunderstanding than a phone call.
I found my way to Nikeland Shoes (www.nikeyx.com) via a message on Trainingforum. The site says the company makes shoes for Nike, Adidas, Puma and Reebok, and has ?a good reputation at home and abroad?. I am not sure what to make of this. The company uses a logo similar ? but not identical ? to the Nike ?swoosh?, and makes an unsuccessful stab at creating a more sophisticated look. I suppose potential customers know how to identify companies they want to do business with, but it seems to me that Nikeland falls down the gap between the simplicity of a trading board and the comfort of a high quality website.
A few companies have moved on to such a site. TTV Group is a Bangkok-based company that has a big toy-making operation in China, and a simple but high quality site (www.plushtoys4you.com) promoting it. The most striking element is that the English is both flawless and engaging ? a source of great reassurance among Anglophones. The site uses simple icons (some based on teddy bears), and has simple but logical navigation.
In contrast to the Nikeland site, TTV tells customers everything they may want to know. The home page has a photo series showing the five stages of production (of a teddy bear, of course) ? these are backed up by detailed descriptions of processes such as mounting eyes and installing joints. If you want to buy a stock product, click on the range to see photos and specifications; I rather liked the bear known as Toy00069. If you want your own design made up, the site tells you exactly what it needs to make sample up, and how long it will take (a week). As a bonus, there is a history of the teddy bear ? or rather four rival stories of its origin, with an invitation to visitors to send in other versions they know. Altogether, a well-rounded and compelling website.
The one thing it does not have is e-commerce. There is a fairly obvious reason for this: the company is geared up to sell through distributors in other countries, rather than make individual sales. But it would be interesting to know just what it would sell me Toy00069 for ? and how much I would pay for it in my local shop.
Does any of this have a lesson for African entrepreneurs? It certainly could ? but that must be up to them.
David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant at Bowen Craggs Co (www.bowencraggs.com).